Photo courtesy of the Matt Artz

Steven Lubar–Professor of American Studies, Brown University–discusses what it’s like to take 13 first-years from the museum to the machine shop in search of a new understanding of skill.


Gridium: Hello everyone, and welcome to this conversation with Steven Lubar, Professor of American Studies at Brown University. He is the author of “Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present” and creator of Brown’s first-year seminar “Skills: From the Medieval Workshop to the Maker Movement.” Professor Lubar and his students spent time in the classroom, Brown’s new design workshop, the local steelyard, and the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art.

My name is Millen, and I’m with Gridium. Buildings use our software to fine-tune operations.

We’ll be talking about tacit knowledge, the lessons from studying and writing about design thinking and the philosophy, history, and experience of skill acquisition. And also what it’s like for 13 first-years to get their hands dirty.

Ok, I’m quite excited to be speaking with you today Professor Lubar. This class must have been a ton of fun, and I’m looking forward to discussing some of the big lessons learned. Thanks for joining us!

Prof. Steven Lubar: Delighted to be here, thank you for having me on.

Gridium: So, let’s start with an obvious question: where do you find the courage to take 13 students into the machine shop?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Well, that’s a good question. Most of my classes have been very traditional: students sitting around the seminar table or sitting in a lecture room and a lot of talk going on, but I was eager to try something new because I was starting a new project. I wanted to write a book about skill, to get beyond thinking about just the history and history of technology to actually trying to reimagine what it might have been like to learn some of those skills and to get at the notion of skill. And so I thought, the way to do that is to actually try out some of the skills that I am interested in and would like to learn with a group of students. And between their insights and my insights, I’d learn a lot about the nature of skill. And luckily, the Brown University, The School of Engineering had just established a new makerspace for students—the Brown Design Workshop—and it was an ideal setup. It had classrooms on one side and a pretty good, well-equipped shop—both wood and metal—open to students who took some training courses and some safety courses. And so it made it easy to just move from the classroom into the shop, and it just seemed like a great opportunity.

Gridium: What in your background inspired you to design and lead a course like this?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Well, I have a bit of an odd background for a professor, in a history department, an American Studies department.

Gridium: Right.

Prof. Steven Lubar: I went to MIT as an undergraduate thinking I would be an engineer or a mathematician or something, and quickly discovered that I was much more interested in the history and the culture around those things than actually trying to do that kind of work. And so, I ended up doing history of technology studying the… wrote a dissertation on the 19th-century textile industry, trying to figure out how those mills were really operated and who did what and who managed things. And then became curator at the Smithsonian: Curator of History of Technology, collecting machines and tools and trying to document America’s history of manufacturing and industry, but never actually using those tools very much; never actually trying to re-enact those skills much more than reading about them and getting other people to talk about them and documenting what other people did.

And the notion… the idea came up that I would really learn something from doing that hands-on work, and so I had this notion of a book that I would write that would combine both the history of skills and present day me trying to learn the skills. And this seemed like a good place to begin that. So, trying to combine history and hands-on lead to this course.

Gridium: Right. And you mentioned the Modern Maker movement echoes the Arts and Crafts movement from 100 years ago—this is from your piece on medium describing some of the results of a course that you’ve lead. I recently watched Ken Burns’ Shaker documentary, and their craftsmanship is simply stunning. What did your students have to say about attention to detail and to quality?

Prof. Steven Lubar: So, one of the things the course tried to do was to connect the long history of thinking about skill to the present moment. I’m sure many of your listeners know about the maker movement today: the idea of getting back into the shop and making things, at almost every level from elementary schools to local public libraries to college engineering courses: the notion is get back into the shop—actual hands-on work is useful. And one of the things that I learned as I was reading through the history to prepare for this course was that that idea is not a new one. After the Industrial Revolution triumphed in the late 19th Century, there were lots of individuals, artists, writers who were very interested in getting back into the shop and actually hands-on making things. The Industrial Revolution brought forth lots of ideas of how do you respond to this in a way that is more humane than the big factories. The Shakers are another good example of that—a really thoughtful way of saying, how can we be part of this industrial world to some extent, but not look like the big factories they saw all around them, the big textile mills. And so they said, “We’ll make objects that are beautiful, that are about craft skill” and you can see this throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century—this idea that craftsmanship is important in its own right.

And so, whether you look at the Arts & Crafts movement of the British folks, like William Morris, who said, “We will make beautiful textiles and beautiful books.” Or the Shakers who say, “We will make beautiful objects because it’s important to have that connection with the natural world.” That’s something that keeps coming up in some ways as a reaction against industrialization, and the students saw that too when they made things. The class was not so much about developing detail and you know, enormous skill in any one field—that’s beyond what you can do in a class. But part of it was noticing the beauty of objects that are made by a skilled craftspeople. One of the places we saw that best is when we went to the John Hay Library, Brown University’s rare book library and looked at some of the books that had been printed as part of that Arts & Crafts movement at the early 20th century. Just beautiful, beautiful things! Maybe not practical in the sense that they were much more expensive than machine-printed works, but that handwork… the craftsmanship like you said was simply stunning, and students really appreciated that.

Gridium: Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance spends quite a bit of time on the concept of quality. I always remember what he says about the concerns of a mechanic who listens to music while working, who essentially can’t focus. Did your students experience any “flow states” as they were working on their new skills?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Yeah, I did not actually assign Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the class, although I thought long and hard about it. It’s a very… it’s a difficult book in many ways and hard to use as a textbook in some ways. It’s a wonderful book to read as an individual. One of the assignments for the class was, “Over the course of the semester pick up some new skill.” And the rules were a little bit open, but basically I said it should be a mechanical skill. You know, something you’re doing with your hands and it should produce something at the end of the class. And students picked up a number of different skills, but two or three of them tried knitting—two guys actually in the class tried knitting. And they found it fascinating exactly for this sense of this “flow state” that they got into, that they could focus on things—they could focus on their knitting and sort of not worry about other things. Or, when they were getting better at it, focus on the knitting and also on talking to people or listening to something. And it was just fascinating to hear them describe the value of this for somebody in their first year in college was being able to sort of separate yourself from tomorrow’s quiz or the homework assignment or whatever, and to just get into that flow state of focusing on that knitting.

And I think a number of the students found that it takes a while when learning a new skill. At the beginning, it’s sort of the opposite of flow—everything goes wrong, everything is difficult, but eventually as they got better at it, they really found something of that flow that Pirsig talks about.

Gridium: In a picture of the chalkboard during one of your class sessions, I see that you’ve written down “Knowledge of Materials.” Leonardo Da Vinci emphasizes this in his notebooks, citing such examples as blocks of wood and also dissecting the muscles of the human face that control, as I recall, either the upper or lower lips. How did your class approach underlying materials?

Prof. Steven Lubar: So, this was something that I had hoped to focus on a lot of the class. One of the things that a good, skilled worker knows is something about the materials that they’re working with and so, my hope was to talk especially about wood and metal because that’s what the shop can deal with—it was easy to work with. And so I’d spent some time early on talking about different kinds of wood and something as simple as hammering a nail into a piece of wood—which is something we started with actually in the first week of the class. So, what do you need to know to hammer a nail into a piece of wood? It’s something that once you do it you never think about it again, it’s easy. But in fact, the very first time, you have to think about how hard is that wood. You have to think about how you hold the hammer, how that there’s lots that goes on there that once you learn it you don’t have to think about it again. And trying hammering a nail into a piece of hardwood and a piece of softwood really makes you think a little bit about what you’re doing and about the materials you’re working with.

The same thing when we moved from wood to, I guess we bent some steel and drilled holes in wood and steel, trying to get a feel for the material. How hard is it? How much resistance does it give? How, when you drill a hole in a piece of sheet metal, you have to think about how hard you’re pushing it in a way that’s different from how hard you’re pushing the drill into a piece of word. So, all those kinds of issues were the kinds of things that I’d hoped to get at by the most fundamental, simple way. “So, let’s look at this material and then think about how we use it. What do you need to know to use this material?” That was the goal in thinking about materials. And, of course, somebody like Leonardo or a skilled stone carver has a sense of materials that’s much more sophisticated. In the class, we can only get a brief glimpse of that kind of sophistication, but just opening up the possibility for thinking about the material was one of the goals early on in the class.

Gridium: Professor Lubar, have you been working on a skill?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Oh, I was afraid you were going to ask me that question. I have worked on many skills and never developed any of them very well. So, I actually… one of the things that inspired me for this class was taking a course in welding. Welding is sort of a fascinating skill, historically. How much you need to know to weld and whether welding is actually a skilled trade was something that was debated a lot in the early 20th century. And a local arts training organization called The Steel Yard here in Providence offered some wonderful classes, including welding—sort of hobbyist welding, art welding. They also offer very serious welding for job training for folks who are looking for jobs as welders.

So, I took that course and started to realize some of the interesting challenges of teaching skills, but also sort of the thrill of being able to pick up a skill that seems magical, like welding. You take these two solid pieces of steel and you put them next to each other and you put this device in the middle of it and suddenly you’ve made something new out of it. You deal with fire and noise and smoke and… it’s wonderful! And so I’ve worked on that a little bit, but I guess I went into the course… I guess I told the students right up front, “I am not teaching you from my deep knowledge of any particular skill. I’m interested more in the idea and the nature of skill than… I’m not going to be able to teach you how to be a skilled woodworker or a skilled welder. I can talk to you about the nature of skill.”

Gridium: My dad is always proud to say that he knows how to sew. Why did you include this skill?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Yeah, so sewing is a wonderful skill and in part, I included it very much thinking about traditional gender roles. You know, traditionally women know how to sew and men don’t. I’m old enough in remembering in high school when we did it, the boys took shop classes and the girls took home ec—they learned to sew and cook, and we learned to work with wood and metal. So, it would seem important to me to right up front address that kind of issue: that sewing was an important skill to talk about gender roles. But, more than that, sewing was one of the very first two days or the first two meetings of the class. We did lock-picking and sewing, and the reason I picked those two was that they’re both something that very quickly you can get good enough to actually do something. Welding you have to work at for a while, I’ll say. But sewing, with 10-minutes worth of lessons and half an hour’s worth of fooling around and trying it out, you can make something that’s sort of interesting and even useable. It’s a quick skill to learn. It’s also really interesting from the point of view of separating out material skill, tool skill, and sort of knowledge of how to plan something.

So, everybody in the class made sort of just a little sac: two pieces of cloth sewn together around the edges with a string around the top. And in the course of a couple of hours at home, after this homework, they could make something that they could actually use and in making that, they had to think about planning ahead. They had to think about the needle and how they were going to focus on where the needle went, and they had to think about the nature of the material as well. So, it just struck me as really fascinating skill for breaking down the parts. And then of course, some of them went on to do embroidery as their skill and got all of the complications of sewing and needles and thread, so it worked both ways.

The lock picking was the other one that I started off with and that’s, I find, fascinating in part because it’s pretty easy. Again, in half an hour you can learn to pick a cheap lock and feel an immediate success.

Gridium: I didn’t realize that.

Prof. Steven Lubar: And because… well, it turns out cheap locks are really cheap for a reason. Don’t use cheap Master locks if you want to keep things secure. But more than that, it’s about understanding sort of… imaging what’s inside of a device—thinking about how it works. And so, the skill of lock-picking is basically imagining how the pins are inside of a lock and thinking about what you need to do to eject them. So, in some ways, it’s very much a simple skill that makes you think about what skill is and what you know. So, between that and sewing, we got off to a good start in the class.

Gridium: I don’t know anything about Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge. What is “tacit knowledge” and “know-how,” as he sees them?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Yeah… so, Michael Polanyi is a fascinating fellow. He’s a… it’s hard to describe. He was a scientist in 1930s, 40s, 50s England and he started to write about what it takes to be a good scientist and also what it takes to be a good… well, to have skills. He sort of tries to come up with a theory around all of this.

His Personal Knowledge book was published in 1958, so it’s an old book, but it’s a book that I thought was still useful. We didn’t read the whole thing, it’s a very long work mostly about science, but it includes a chapter on The Nature of Skill and the thing that we most took out of the book is the notion of “tacit knowledge”. And there the idea is: what is it that a skilled person knows that they don’t have to think about anymore? So, the example he uses which is something we actually did in class after we read the chapter, is hammering a nail. And so, when you’re hammering a nail, you have to do it well—you have to forget almost all of the things that you needed to know to learn that. So, what he means by tacit knowledge is that it’s tacit, it’s quiet; it’s no longer in the front of your brain to how what you need to do whether it’s holding the hammer in a particular way, or how you get feedback from how the sound of the hammer hitting the nail. He’s always sort of… and when you get good at something, you no longer need to think about it.

And he goes on to much more about that and the way the scientists think about their work—that they don’t need to… you have to have a lot already in your brain to become good at moving the edges of science forward. You want to not think about the early things that you had to know to learn it. And so, what I was trying to get at in that class was really to think about how to both be explicit about what you know and then how to realize that you don’t need to be… when you get really good at something you no longer need to be explicit about it because it becomes implicit or tacit. So, that was the wonderful idea that we got out of Polanyi—the idea of tacit knowledge.

Gridium: Your class visited a welding shop, a barista training center, and a glass blowing shop. Any highlights? Did any shoes catch fire?

Prof. Steven Lubar: (Laughs) So, certainly the students loved the visits. That was the, I think for many of them, the highlight of the class: a chance to get off campus and go to interesting places around the city and talk to people, learn new things, see new things.

So, I think probably the students favorite visit was to the steel yard to learn welding. It was really very much hands-on. At the end of the day, they all had actually made something, and they had a real sense of the amount that they needed to know and the amount of work and what it is that they really got out of it.

My favorite may actually have been the barista training center, partly because it amused me to think that the students who were learning a little bit about how to be a barista, which is a classic thing that they worry about they’re going to end up working as. But also because it was very interesting to see how basically to get a little bit of the actual training that somebody would get for this job that is a skilled job in many ways, but it’s also been designed so that the barista can spend most of his or her time talking to the customer and not have to think about exactly what they’re doing. The machines have some of the skill built in—they’re basically told how long and they’ve separated the skill into very clearly defined pieces, the folks that set up the training. And it was just fascinating to think through that. And then the second half of that assignment was the students had to go and visit a coffee shop and talk to a barista about their work. And so, they get the two sides of that: the way that the companies that are training the baristas are thinking about the skills and then the skills as the students learn from talking to people doing the work. I thought it was really… got some of the most interesting writing.

The glass blowing was especially interesting because, well as you know, glass blowing is enormously fun to watch. And we went to the RISD—the Rhode Island School of Design, Glass Shop and our demonstrator, our instructor there was actually an undergraduate in the glass program who was still learning and talked really in a lovely way, eloquently about how she had learned what she did, the mistakes she made as she was learning. You know, she hadn’t quite reached that stage where it was all tacit knowledge, where it was already… she didn’t have to think about it anymore. She was still thinking things through as she was explaining them, and so that made for a wonderful educational demonstration, plus it was just wonderful to you know, hot glass and glass exploding into little bits and pieces and all of that is just… you know, you can’t do better than fire. So, between welding and glass, the students really saw some of the more dramatic examples of skill.

Gridium: I don’t want to skim over the importance of tools, I understand that you explored some stone tools at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, and also there’s a picture of a metal file in your essay about this course on Medium. My first car mechanic mentor, George, gave me a swiss army knife to use my first week in the garage, to slowly file away the paint and primer on a car’s chassis before we did some welding. What did the class learn about tools?

Prof. Steven Lubar: So, the tools are an essential part of skills and I wanted this class to think about what tools allowed them to do, the ways in which tools constrained their work sometimes, the difference between the tool and the machine. And so, the places where we looked most of the tools were—well, I mentioned hammers before which are sort of your basic tool, but even more basic than that are the classic stone tools. And so, we went to visit the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology here at Brown to look at stone tools, arguably human’s first tools are the points—the axes that they make out of tools.

And then we had a fellow who’s an expert in reproducing those stone tools come and teach the students how to do it. So, we had a lovely October day sitting outside with a giant pile of stones in front of us trying to figure out how to hit one stone with another stone in a way that made nice points. So, the tool there, the first stone is just a harder piece of rock that you have to control in such a way to hit this rock that will flake off little bits and pieces. And so the flaking is sort of hitting one rock with another rock. And very quickly the students had to think about how they held that piece of rock, what made a good rock to hit another rock with, what shape it should be, how hard it should be, and how those two things related. And so, they got to think about tools in sort of the most fundamental way when we went to think about you know, pieces of rock as tools.

Gridium: Right.

Prof. Steven Lubar: And then of course, making the tools—making the flint, our own pads and the projectile points that some of them were good at, some of them mostly not so good at, and some like me just got a very sore knee and a sore hand out of it. And lots of bits and pieces of broken stone!

But the comparison with the file is really interesting, and what we tried to do with the file is to talk about the ways in which skills are used in industrial settings. So, one of the big questions in the history of 19th-century technology is moving from the skilled filer who would make metal parts to somebody who would use a machine tool to make metal parts. And while it’s hard to imagine a machinist as a de-steeling process—learning to be a machinist—the person who could file things had an enormous amount of skill and control that so, let’s say, to file a piece of metal to be a perfect square or a perfect shape… it turns out to be an interesting challenge. So, we tried that in class taken in its simplest way: we took a little piece of rod and said, “What skills do you need to turn this from a round thing into a square thing?” So, a little bit about planning, but a lot of it about what kind of control do you need? What skills are needed?

And then, the discussion from there, into again a big historical question in 19th century American history is the role of filing in mass production. So, one of the questions about making guns in the early 19th century on making muskets is to what extent is that done by the machine? To what extent is that done by skilled craftsman who actually have to file each part to make it fit? And interchangeable parts, one of the big concerns of the army and that in the early 19th century, the ideal was you would have machines that would make every part of the musket the same and they’d all be interchangeable. And it turns out that’s really hard to do and early on, a lot of those parts are really filed by hand by these skilled craftspeople. So, that was the reason we went out into the shops. We read about those things then we went out into the shop and tried to actually do that kind of skilled filling to get a sense of just how skilled those people needed to be to file those parts.

Gridium: Were there any commonalities across the “hardness” of what your students reported when sharing you know, difficulties or challenges that they were experiencing as you all went along?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Yeah, that’s a really good question. One of the keys to this class is after every class they had to write a short paper about what they learned and what was hard, what was easy, what they found challenging and some of them did try to make comparisons across the skills. I don’t see any… I’m just trying to think back over those papers. There was a really wide range of what was hard and easy, partly depending on what the students had done before they came to the class. So, one of my students had been a carpenter building houses for a year before coming to Brown. And another one had been a lumberjack chopping down trees in the North West. Some of them had done embroidery. So, if they had skills like that, they’d already sort of thought about some of these issues.

Students who tried to learn new skills, I think almost across the board, found them interesting challenges and they all I think were a little bit surprised by how much time it took to begin to get good at something. So, whether one student took up welding as a skill for the course of the semester and I think found it a little bit frustrating. You know, again, it was easy to make two pieces of metal fold together; to make a good weld that looked good and was strong, it was not all the way through the two pieces of metal… that took a lot of time. And I think that the time that it took may have been one of the lessons that came across all of the skills that they learned, that it really does take time to learn a skill.

The other thing was the challenge of talking about it well: how do you describe this? We often don’t have the words to describe learning skills and they all had to think hard about that as they wrote their papers. And that may be one of the things that they all get out of the class, which was how to talk about skills, how to write about this kind of topic. And so, I hope that’s something that they all got better at and I really think it is.

Gridium: Steve, do you think craftsmanship is a lost art?

Prof. Steven Lubar: Oh, that’s such a good question! There are certainly craftspeople out there now that are as good as they have ever been. We read a lot of contemporary writing on craftsmanship and there was certainly as high a level of craftsmanship now as any time in the past. So, I don’t think it’s a lost art in that way. What I think may be lost is an appreciation of it, a wide appreciation of craftsmanship. You can make such good things with machines that work just fine and so it’s hard to say you should pay much more to buy something that’s made by hand. To appreciate that, how you learn that appreciation… I think the maker movement is in part about bringing back an appreciation and an ability to be a craftsperson again. So, I don’t think it’s a lost art but I don’t think it’s as widely appreciated as it might be and that’s one thing that I get out of the class, is really looking at the beginning work that the students had done and thinking about how much time and effort goes into really being an expert.

One of the books that we read in class is called The Lost Carving, written by perhaps the greatest woodcarver working today, talking about how it is that he thinks about his work and how much practice it takes to become a really great craftsperson. And so, that may be the part that is hard to find people that put that time into crafts. But the ones who do it, I think, are rewarded and then, like I say, there are certainly craftspeople out there now who are as good as who have ever been.

Gridium: Got it. Well, that is fascinating.

And thank you Steve for speaking with us today. This has been fun.

For more information, I invite the audience to check out Professor Lubar’s essay, available on Medium, titled Teaching Skill.

Prof. Steven Lubar: It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Happy, if anybody has any suggestions or comments, get in touch with me at Brown or through the Medium site. And I’m looking forward to teaching this again next year, so I am looking for suggestions and advice. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Gridium: Great, thank you.

Prof. Steven Lubar: Thank you.

About Millen Paschich

Millen began his career at Cambridge Associates, trained in finance at SMU, and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, business, and green chile burritos.

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